Friday, 21 November 2014

Remember, Remember on the 5th of November: Inequality is Unjust

What better day that the 5th of November to stage a protest at the Houses of Parliament. Well, not so much day as night and not just Westminster, but Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and No. 10 Downing Street as well. This march was organised by the Occupy/Anonymous Movement and it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up for many reasons including socioeconomic, political, historical and photographic. I have great sympathy for sense of outrage that fomented this global cause. I appreciate how these activists have brought the injustice and unsustainability of inequality to light and I earnestly hope that we see real change in the near future – for the sake of young people and generations to come.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Scientology: The Art of Obfuscating and Marketing

A few weeks ago we received through the letterbox a questionnaire calling itself the Oxford Capacity Analysis.  It contained well over a hundred questions concerning personality as well as mental, emotional and behavioural disorders.  When I looked carefully at the small print I noticed that the organisation which had devised this had nothing whatsoever to do with Oxford University, but had come from the London-based Church of Scientology.  The flyer invited me to complete the questionnaire, whereupon it would be analysed and the results presented to me at no charge at its London centre on Queen Victoria Street.  So as part of my personal project into investigating as many places of worship in my area as I can, I thought this was an opportunity not to be missed.  I filled out the form and within a few days was invited to meet a Scientologist to discuss my problems – as this is what the Oxford Capacity Analysis inevitably finds out about participants.  She was a lovely person – very professional and in a centre that seemed like a cross between a hotel and a mausoleum.  I saw no other human beings in the centre besides my “analyst” and the receptionist.  It was a little creepy.  As a way of introduction I was given a video to watch from which the only memory I have is a slideshow of all the stunning Scientology Churches around the world – most photos taken at night and positively glowing.  Then it showed people reading books in what looked like Scientology libraries.  Oh, and there were lots of smiling faces in the film. 

So back to the Oxford Capacity Analysis.  It’s set up to look at 10 categories of emotions & personality traits with a sliding scale between the”desirable state” and the “undesirable state”.  For example, based on how you answer some of the questions, you’re ranked between stable and unstable.  Okay, is that straight forward?  Here are the other categories:

Happy | Depressed
Composed | Nervous
Certainty | Uncertainty
Active | Inactive
Aggressive | Inhibited
Responsible | Irresponsible
Correct Estimation | Critical
Appreciative | Lack of Accord
Communicative | Withdrawn

So in presenting my results, it was pretty clear that I had some major issues to deal with. Now, keep in mind, this is the primary way that the Church of Scientology has presented itself – its beliefs, teaching and methods - to me for the first time.  The message is:

  1. You’ve got some serious problems that we’ve uncovered with our “scientifically” developed analysis. 
  2. Don’t you want to free yourself from these in order to be successful and reach your full potential?
  3. We can help you do this.
  4. Will that be cash or card for your first course? 

I asked the woman giving me my analysis to tell me what Scientology is about; I wanted to understand what the philosophical basis of it was.  Most religions and philosophies try to answer these four basic questions:  Why are we here?  What’s wrong with us?  What can be done about it?  And how’s it all going to turn out in the end?  I mean, even atheists can answer those questions.   But she just skirted around these, repeating over and over that the only way to get to the heart of Scientology was to practise it immediately – by reading the L Ron Hubbard books and enrolling in a class.  It was as though the fundamental beliefs of Scientology could not be understood until you were well and truly neck deep in it.  And that was something I was completely unwilling to do.  This reminded me of some of the practices of New Age Spirituality, like meditation, yoga, crystals, tarot cards and such.  So many don’t really explain the basis upon which their practices are built, but rather give the message:  you have a problem; do this; you’ll get enlightenment when you’ve made sufficient progress.  

I can also understand tithing to places of worship in order that they provide for the less fortunate and other worthy causes.  But it really wasn’t clear to me why Scientology considers itself to be a church.  It seemed more like expensive self-help in a tax-free hotel.  It’s not that I’m cynical; rather I think people are actually being duped into believing that ultimate reality is about being a person with Scientology-determined characteristics and without Scientology-determined flaws; there really wasn’t much discussion in the area of ethics in those posh halls.  Yes, we all have problems, some of which can be lessened with psychological counselling.  But I strongly urge people not to base their entire worldview on a “religion” that can’t even reveal what it really believes in an hour and a half.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Photojournalism outside Downing Street

On Saturday the 23rd of August I attended the demonstration in Whitehall against the continued selling of arms to Israel, organised by a range of organisations protesting against the current siege of Gaza. For the most part the event was peaceful, though without question one of high emotion and energy.  There was only one small scuffle I witnessed between a single demonstrator attempting to cross the road heading towards the gates of 10 Downing Street.  He was swiftly grabbed by Met officers as well as one of the protest organisers.   This brings the newspaper headlines and television reports home.  It also makes me grateful to live in a country where the freedom to gather and speak truth to power is an important part of the culture.

Monday, 19 May 2014

SME Growth Accelerator Clinic

This past Friday I had the privilege of photographing the SME Growth Accelerator Clinic in the offices of PayPal in Richmond.  Rarely have I attended a workshop as enjoyable and worthwhile: its aim to help the vital SME sector address the challenges that hinder their growth.  The importance of this segment of the supply side of the economy was underscored by the presence and speeches by Vince Cable and Zac Goldsmith.  Our local mayor, Meena Bond showed her support as well.  I found particularly vital and interesting the talk about the importance and opportunity of sustainable business practices and the unintended consequences of changes in planning regulations to increase the housing stock.  Many congratulations to Helen Roberts of CGP for a great event.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

It's Local Election Time

Two weeks ago our MP Zac Goldsmith hosted a Q&A session at a small local cafĂ© in Kew Village. If you’ve never been here, Kew is very small – though 20 minutes from central London, the meeting had no more than around 30 people in attendance (including local councillors and an MEP). Zac had invited Greg Barker, minister for energy and climate change to talk about the current and future status of energy policy in the UK. He was late, but had a great excuse – he had to drop his child off at school. Oh, and he showed up with his pet dachshund who sat in his lap for the duration of the talk. Politics with the people just doesn’t get more cosy than that. Mr. Barker is an eloquent speaker, waxing lyrical about all the wonderful things happening in Germany and elsewhere in the UK in the area of alternative energy generation. What’s there not to like about that? Thing is, I think most people instinctively love hearing about sustainability and blasting the stranglehold the top 6 energy companies have on energy generation and distribution. Still, I think people generally are unaware of what’s been occurring under our noses over the course of the past few years in this area. There was time for very few questions so I emailed Zac my concerns after and I include these along with Zac’s responses.

MB: Firstly, when talking about fracking, attention focuses largely on the environmental concerns. Understandable and important. But I think we must also understand the impact of fracking in the US has on the price of coal. Generators in the UK choose coal in preference to gas where carbon and pollution regulations allow. Gas consumption for power generation today is little over half the figure at the peak 2008 to 2010. There is currently more coal used for electricity generation in the UK than gas. Alternative energy is exciting and vital but prices of the various types of energy determine what is supplied. Longer term, LNG (from Australia and the US), LNG tanker availability and a truly more integrated European pipeline system as well as renewables will change this profile, but I don't think many have a clear idea of what's actually occurring today.

ZG: I should say first that while I share many of the concerns surrounding fracking, I don’t believe the issue is entirely black and white. For the short and medium term, gas will inevitably form part of the energy mix, even if we see a massive push for renewables and clean energy. No matter whose model you look at, there seems to be a consensus around that. If that’s the case, the gas therefore has to come from somewhere, and it is likely that British shale gas can make a contribution. But, I do have very serious concerns about the potential local environmental impacts of fracking, particularly in relation to groundwater, and more broadly, I think we would be very unwise to imagine that fracking is going to deliver the kind of price reductions described by some of my colleagues in Parliament. In addition, I don’t think that local concerns about the impact of fracking rig installation on landscape character and visual amenity should be simply ignored, and I have pushed for the Government’s new planning guidance, which gives a greater say to local communities over wind farms, to apply equally to fracking rig installations. I have also backed calls for the development of the best possible regulatory regime.

MB: Secondly, I'd like to know what Mr. Barker's relationship is with Ofgem. Does Ofgem have a strategic remit? Why do we hear so little from Ofgem and how would you and/or Mr. Barker rate Ofgem's performance over the past few years.

ZG: Ofgem work independently from the Government. They are a non-ministerial government department and an independent National Regulatory Authority, recognised by EU Directives. However, the Energy Act, which reached Royal Assent in December, was introduced to improve regulatory certainty, and it ensures that Government and Ofgem are aligned at a strategic level through a Strategy and Policy Statement (SPS).

It’s easy to like Zac Goldsmith. He appears to care deeply about certain issues I tend to agree with him upon, such as the Recall Bill and opposing the expansion of Heathrow. It concerns me, however, that though politicians may speak passionately and articulately about issues, my sense is that there’s as much obfuscation as explication. When Boris Johnson spoke in Kew a few months ago, he responded to a concerned citizen’s objection to the new football stadium in Brentford saying that he would review these concerns, knowing very well that assent for the development had already happened weeks beforehand. For all Zac & Boris’s promises that Heathrow won’t be expanded, I have this sinking feeling that the horse trading has already happened. Call me cynical, but like so many in this city, we’ve earned our scepticism.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Cultural Community Centre Watch

It seems that at least once a week I discover some new community centre project in the UK, providing vibrancy and culture to local communities.  A recent article in the Guardian proposes a transformation of cultural organisations into “vital, cherished hubs of their local community, making their disappearances unthinkable.”  Many centres are already hives of activity including classes and workshops at the Battersea Arts Centre and the Albany’s commitment to open its doors to the people of southeast London.

Outside of London, however, the funding climate is harsher.  Annabel Turpin of the ARC in Stockton insists that “arts have a much bigger part to play in the lives of local people.”  She plans to open up her organisation as much as possible to the community, “giving people permission to come in and use the building.”  Her centre provides activities for young, old and every demographic in between.  In a similar vein, mac Birmingham boasts high levels of local engagement.  Its multi-art form centre allows for a wide range of activities.

A key asset of cultural community centres is obviously their space.  This is recognised by Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff and Farnham Maltings in Surrey.  The director of the latter, Gavin Stride, said, “For us to thrive – to be truly popular – we need to become relevant to more people and improve our usefulness.”

As public space shrinks, art centres remain some of the only places that can be enjoyed without necessarily having to buy anything, a fact many people are not aware. Some centres are actively handing ownership over to local people, such as Contact, Manchester where a group of young people from the area play a key role in how the venue is run.  This allows for a greater interactive conversation with the audience as their voices are increasingly being represented in the arts organisation’s decision making structures.

These anecdotes are a sample of some of the exciting new ways in which local communities are coming together to produce and enjoy the arts.  Here’s hoping that these centres remain vibrant, become sustainable and stand as examples for other communities.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Ultimately, Reality is Personal

Yesterday morning Rabbi Lord Sachs presented a provoking Thought for the Day on Radio 4.  In light of new research and development at Ohio State University into algorithms that identify human facial expressions, he asked what differentiates humans from machines.  A fascinating question to with which all worldviews must come to grips, but which I think Christianity handles in a more truthful and hopeful way, particularly in contrast to monistic faiths and philosophies.  Lord Sachs concludes that the distinguishing feature of humans vis a vis technology is the particularity of love. Quoting his former philosophy tutor, Sachs says:
We love individuals, not types.  We love what is unique and irreplaceable, not what can be mass produced.  That is what gives love its poignancy: its inseparable connection with the possibility of loss.  It’s what makes human life sacred: the fact that no one is a substitute for any other.
This calls to mind the dystopian vision of the film Never Let Me Go in which clones are produced and raised to ultimately perform the task of supplying organs to their originators.  Loads of moral and ethical ideas here on the nature of what it means to be human.  I’d really like to hear how monism addresses some of these.  From what I know of some of this thinking, reality and the particularity of the individual are supposedly illusions which would seem to indicate that the clone concept might not be much of a problem at all.  The particularity of love means that it is personal, that ultimate reality is between individuals/among community.  I think many people assume that the foundational notion of compassion in Buddhism is akin to empathy or love, but this isn’t the case.  As Marcia Montenegro explains on her website:
Many admire Buddhism because its teachings on ending suffering often include references to compassion. Compassion, karuna, arises from wisdom and in Buddhism, wisdom is "understanding or discernment of the Buddha's teaching, especially the teaching of anatta, no self." Compassion is the desire to free "all sentient beings" from rebirth. "Sentient beings" include all living creatures, including animals, residents of all the realms (similar to worlds of spirit beings), and demi-gods. One must be human to attain enlightenment, so compassion is needed for these non-humans (including demi-gods) to be reborn as human.
It seems that if the goal of monism is an ultimate reality where all life is freed from rebirth into enlightenment, then ultimate reality wouldn't be characterised by love, but perhaps something more akin to an endless void, dare I say a world of algorithms and nothing else.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Community Arts Centre Watch

Plans for a multi-story mixed use arts and residentialcomplex have been unveiled for central Twickenham, just across the street from the rail station in a former Royal Mail sorting office.  These include spaces for a theatre, cinema and performance space as well as 82 new homes, 16 of which will be affordable housing.  The art centre is meant to host social and community events which makes me - watcher and unashamed cheerleader of venues/projects such as these - very excited.

Since the scheme allows for less than a fifth of the new homes to be affordable there has been controversy.  Councillor Geoffrey Samuel said, "only the conservatives will restore the arts to Twickenham” and that if plans are approved, the project will be completed by the spring of 2016 as part of the Twickenham Area Action Improvement Plan (scheduled to last until 2027).  Councillor Stephen Knight, leader of the opposition in Richmond is critical of the plans for ignoring affordable housing needs and requiring funding that might jeopardise other current arts centres such as the Orleans House Gallery.   The reservation is that most homes in the new development will go to investor buyers rather than owner occupiers.  There has been a doubling in the number of local families being relocated to bed and breakfasts in the past year. 

It’s a shame that this project is such a political football.  We desperately need community involvement in the production and enjoyment of the arts.  We also desperately need the talented artistic members of our communities to stay in London.   That won’t be possible unless housing that’s affordable to hard-working talented individuals/families is more plentiful and available.  Surely Richmond councillors could have come up with a more equitable, sustainable and vibrant solution.  I know it’s hard when you’re sitting on a gold mine of real estate, but please think about the long-term vibrancy, legacy and sustainability of this patch of southwest London that I love.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Effective Altruists or Extreme Paternalists

Rhys Southan is swayed but thankfully not completely persuaded by ‘Effective Altruists’ begging of the question: ‘is it OK to make art?’  in his article appearing in Aeon recently.  The foundational principle of the EA movement is that all human action should be focused on the alleviation of suffering.  This might sound a laudable goal, particularly if the action is directed toward reducing global poverty and injustice and promoting health and well-being.  But this activist movement is much more than raising awareness and encouraging charity.  Rather, it makes some naked assertions about the meaning of life  - that it is the sum total of subjective well-being – and purports to be in a position to direct how individuals should make their livelihoods. 

EA wraps itself in a blanket of moral imperative, without providing a firm foundation of such, other than its own ethical judgments, based on monetary metrics.  Furthermore, we’ve learned from decades of mismanaged, misdirected and miscoordinated aid efforts that development is a complicated business.  It’s often institutions and governance which are the heart of deprivation and suffering.  In certain circumstances these might be better addressed by changes in terms of trade, taxation, labour laws as well as corporate, federal and local governance reform.   What people in poverty need more than anything else is to participate in their local, national or international economy with the skills and talents they possess, not to just receive aid from high earning individuals.

I find the stance of EA to be not just paternalistic but patronising and imperialistic.  The argument that a forex trader working for a large investment bank manipulating libor, but giving a tenth of his or her income to charity is somehow worth more to the world than that individual conducting an orchestra but making less money is absurd, particularly if that manipulation causes hundreds of small businesses to go bust.

EA would argue that if the orchestra conductor can make more money as a forex trader, but really enjoys making music, well tough.  What about the suffering the forex trader inflicts on his friends and family of doing something he/she doesn’t’ really want to do but is dictated to do so by the strictures of utilitarianism – like some overarching karmic dictator, always calculating, quantifying the monetary worth of every second spent earning.  There’s also the presumption that all suffering occurs in developing countries.  What about all those in poverty in London, pushed out of affordable housing by rich forex dealers and Russian oligarchs?  What about all those suffering at the hands of very rich, donating domestic abusers? 

By their own criteria, EA appears to ignore the enormous economic engine that are the creative industries.  In the UK, these sectors generate as much as the financial one.  Not to mention the scores of jobs and spillover into services and manufacturing that creatives produce.  EA, do your research.  See the work of BOP Consulting.  In addition, it’s widely recognised that the arts are one of the most powerful ways to address mental illness and emotional abuse – see the work of the Art Therapy Alliance.  The arts have been one of the most productive and powerful ways in which deprived individuals have been able to work their way out of poverty.

Effective altruism is an ideology based on its own strict ethical judgments.  They base their denouncement of the arts on the notion of replacability – that most artists aren’t very good and that they are easily replaced, ergo there should be fewer of them.   Sounds like they’ve ditched the importance of freedom so beloved of John Stuart Mill.  Radical ideologies lead to serious problems, and EA is just such a one – radically reductive and effectively paternalistic.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Cultural Centre Watch: Drink, Shop & Do

It's heartening to see that barely a week goes by and there's news of a new multi-offering venue in London.  Drink, Shop & Do, located in King's Cross, is a cafe, shop and dance hall!  It looks clean, lively and inviting - so much more appropriate for children than the quotiiden coffee bars.  There are dance classes, vinatage hair & makeup sessions as well as hen dos and tea parties.  This placees just sounds so wonderful - please, please could someone open something like this in TW9??

Monday, 17 February 2014

Cultural Patch Thriving in N1

Another sighting on my community culture watch: The Proud Archivist has opened on Regent's Canal near Haggerston Overground Station.  The venue is a combination of gallery, bar, restaurant, cafe and events space.  It says it was:
built around an engaging and versatile concept - designed and programmed to echo, emulate and revive the traditions of London's grand 17th and 18th century coffee houses.
This space combines so many of the things I envision as keys to future community centres across the country: a simple cafe, art display space and library aesthetic, overlaid, they say "with a diverse fringe cultural and community programming."  The Proud Archivist wants to reflect the interests and passions of the people who make up their locale.  Its aim is become "a thriving cultural and entertainment hub at he heart of the community."

I for one, can't wait to experience this place.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Inclusive Palaces

Following on from my blogpost of the 25th of September, I have been utterly delighted to read two articles recently that wax lyrical about the idea that the UK has large pools of untapped talent, ready to rehabilitate local communities. 

Nick Miller reported on how crowdsourcing in Clapham has enabled a community to turn an old Victorian library into Omnibus: “a vibrant new arts centre.” 

I’ve seen many architecturally stunning churches converted into luxury flats in my patch of town, so it’s heartening to hear of a project in which local residents campaigned for SEVEN YEARS to have their council grant them a lease for the arts centre.  Volunteers have been at the heart of the Omnibus project in marketing, fundraising and production.  
The approach was very much that everyone had something to offer – some skill or knowledge to share…The common link between the Omnibus volunteers is that everyone has given their time and knowledge because they believed in the mission of the organisation -  namely, to create a visible new destination for the arts that enriches the lives of a diverse group of people.
I also discovered that the idea of the collective arts venture was promoted decades ago by Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price.  They thought up the notion of a fun palace: “a revolutionary venue, housing culture and science, encouraging engagement, debate and enjoyment…the fun palace was about public engagement at its most inclusive.”

Though Joan’s fun palaces were never built, owing to cost, the concept is appearing now and again around the UK.  By taking advantage of underutilised spaces, the new Fun Palaces project consists of more than 150 venues and companies and has enlisted independent artists, theatre-science makers and producers. Stella Duffy reports in her Guardian article of the 6th of January:
These creators will work with local people and organisations, combining arts, culture, technology and science to create local fun palaces.  Our aim is to connect them all in tone and spirit, and also digitally through an online fun palace that will be part-game, part-content, but all-engagement.
I completely agree with the writer Ms. Duffy who believes that cultural participation isn’t just something is done for us or something we passively consume.  Rather, creative work – by all ages, but particularly the young and old – is something we all do and can enjoy.